Friday, October 13, 2017

From The Ice They Came

From The Ice They Came by Eric S. Brown  and N.X. Sharps. Originally published by Severed Press, April 2017. Approx. 136 pages.

From the Ice They Came, a neat little collaborative novella by Brown and Sharps, is a fun romp that combines military action, psychic powers, and Lovecraftian influences. The end result is fast paced, self-aware, and, towards the end, absolutely drenched in blood and ichor. Before we dissect it, let's take a look at the back cover blurb, which summarizes all quite nicely:

"Without warning or explanation U.S. Army Captain Robert Gilman is escorted to a cutting-edge research base in the Antarctic tundra by the shady multinational Ward Consortium. Competent but otherwise unexceptional, it turns out that his long suppressed abilities could be the lynchpin to decrypting the enigma posed by a tablet that predates human history. Isolated from civilization, presented with the carrot and the stick by the Consortium, and surrounded by others with special abilities of their own, ultimately curiosity compels Gilman to travel down the rabbit hole. But the further he delves, the greater the strain on reality becomes, and before long he discovers the Eibon Complex may well be ground zero for an inter-dimensional invasion by forces beyond human comprehension."

Let me just start out by stating that there is nothing either "new" or groundbreaking here. FTITC cobbles together elements of Lovecraft, The Thing, X-Men, and a slew of other iconic properties into a decadent morsel of entertainment loaf. Also, as mentioned, the writing is done in an an easy, breezy, self-aware style that helps move the proceedings along quickly. This is not a deep book; but rather something akin to an old B-movie classic. This is not a damning indictment; but actually high praise.

Characters:
While our characters are instantly recognizable, they are also fairly memorable. Robert Gilman (nice 40K nod there) is a fairly even blend between military type and pop-culture referencing geek. He does his best to be a hero in the face of the unknown and impossible; all the while cultivating his dormant psychic skills.

He is, of course, given a romantic interest, as well as a pretty-boy foil. There is an interesting character in the leader of the team of red-shirts, er, military contractors tasked with guarding the base. And, the whole shebang is overseen by a classic corporate ice queen.

Again, nobody new, but still fresh.

Setting:
There's two primary settings to focus on here. First is the facility. Centered in the middle of Antarctica, it is a high-tech hub in the midst of the world's most barren tundra. The description of the facility itself is well-done, but the Antarctic wasteland is an afterthought. When writing for that setting, you want to stress how remote it is (hence cut away from help), and how brutal the weather is. This is done to a degree, but not as much as it could have been (see Alan Dean Foster's novelization of The Thing for a primer on this).

The other setting is the "dream world"; the world in which, during the middle of the story, we snatch glimpses of the bizarre landscapes in which the creatures dwell. Here Brown and Sharps flex a bit more authorial muscle; painting with Lovecraftian shades of hallucinogenic colors and impossible geometric influences.

Creatures:
Ah, yes. The "They" of the title. You actually get a lot of creature bang for your buck in this novella. There are two types on offer: lobster-mantids and brutal, overgrown space amoebas. The descriptions of the creatures themselves, as well as the devastation which they unleash, is superb.

Action/Pacing:
Again, the pacing here is nice and brisk. If you are a normal reader, you can probably finish this in the time it takes to watch a movie; a good pairing for the cinematic feel of the prose. We start with the bonding scenes of the group in the facility, move on to a few weird jaunts through the hellish dreamscapes, and then it's about thirty straight pages of explosive climax.

The action is well-done; replete with plentiful gunplay and flying gobbets. One might complain that the psychic powers of the Gifted aren't used more in the climax; but a key issue is the physical/emotional drain that usage foists upon the user.

In summary; if there is one complaint that I can offer, it is (and other reviewers have pointed it out as well) that the proofreading here is really poor. I usually don't quibble about typos here and there; but in this book we are averaging 1-2 a page. I put this on the publisher more than the authors; but still, it is a deterrent to fully enjoying the book.

So, I saved this book for October, which is when I am usually looking for a good scare or two. Alas, there are no scares here, but plenty of action and witty, self-aware quips and references. Don't take it all too seriously, and you'll have a great time.

Plus, it has a solid (open) ending.

Cover:

This is a nice enough cover, especially for a small press book. However, there are no critters like this in these pages.

At first glance, I thought that this was some sort of Cthulhoid creature, with tentacles across the mouth. Upon closer glance; well, I'm not sure. It looks sort of like a helmet and humanoid face.

Either way, it reminds me of Nemesis Enforcer from the G.I. Joe Movie.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Nice Giveaway Being Offered By Grimdark Magazine!

Grimdark Magazine (GDM) is currently hosting a pretty fantastic giveaway, ending on September 30th!

Here's the details:

"COMPETITION TIME: Win a signed and lined hardcover of Anna Smith-Spark's The Court of Broken Knives and a limited edition hardcover of Evil is a Matter of Perspective signed by all 19 contributing authors. One randomly picked winner will take both books.
1 like = 1 entry
1 comment + tag a mate/s = 3 entries
1 share = 5 entries
Book selfie (*a selfie of you with your own ebook / paperback / hardcover copy of either The Court of Broken Knives or Evil is a Matter of Perspective) = 10 entries
STRETCH GOALS
If we hit 1k likes, I'll throw in three paperbacks of Evil is a Matter of Perspective to three more random picks.
If we hit 1.5k likes, Anna will throw in three signed paperbacks to three more random picks.
TERMS AND CONDITIONS
Available to all countries.
Multiple comments do not equal extra points.
Maximum entries per entrant = 19
Maximum books won per person (in regards to stretch goals) = 1
Competition closes 30/9/2017 midnight AEST
Books cannot be won by GdM staff
Likes, comments, and selfies must be on this original post.
Kindle books count for book selfies"


Image may contain: text

Entries MUST be made on the original post. See here.

Good luck everyone!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Bond Unknown

Bond Unknown by Edward M. Erdelac and William Meikle; edited by Neil Baker. A James Bond "weird stories" short story/novella anthology. Originally published by April Moon Books, September 2017. Approx. 250 pages.

HachiSnax Note: I received a digital copy of this book from the editor in exchange for a fair and unbiased review. This is exactly what I intend to offer. I want to thank Neil Baker for the opportunity; as well as Ed Erdelac for putting my name out for consideration in reviewing it. Cheers, gents!

Ok, let me start this review with the declaration that I am not a James Bond authority; I have always been a casual enjoyer. My parents took us to the movies fairly often; and I would peek at holiday marathons on TBS, or channels like that. I read some of the Fleming books in my youth; but had to put down recent reading of fare such as John Gardner's Scorpius, because, well, it just wasn't very good.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that even though I am not a Bond "superfan"; I was intrigued and excited by the premise here - weird tales starring everybody's favorite suave spy. This excitement was enhanced by the knowledge that Erdelac would be penning a novella contribution here. I am not familiar with Meikle's work; but a quick look at his Amazon page shows some interesting stuff.

Well; we'll find out soon enough. His tale is up first.

Into the Green:

I think a good primer before going into these types of stories is to determine how do you like your Bond? Which of the actors/attitudes resonate with your best enjoyment of the character? Meikle starts off with this note:

"I’ve been a Bond fan as long as I can remember, and back then
when the world was young JB was Scottish, hard as nails, and a
bit of a bastard. That’s how I like my Bonds, and that’s how he
appears in my story here, which starts with Commander Bond, a
British submarine, and a strange research station in Alaska."

Ok, cool. I prefer my Bond in the Connery/Moore vein myself, as well. In Into the Green, we follow Bond on a mission to Anchorage to investigate some odd goings-on at a research facility. These weird happenings include a dramatic rise in the usual chill Alaskan weather; strange sounds akin to singing in the night sky, and the deaths of a few scientists. One of these scientists was a relative of someone high up on the British food chain; ergo, Bond is on the case.

Here's the short version, up front: I did really enjoy this story (the shorter of the two offerings; coming in at roughly 50 pages). There is some very good stuff in here. However, there are also some aspects the felt a little rushed, or just outright incomplete.

Characters: First and foremost, how is the Bond representation? The story will live or die based on this, right?  Meikle gives us a solid rendition of Bond here. He abides by the tenets that he laid down in his author notes. This Bond is lethal, suave, and, most importantly, always cool under fire.

Sadly, we do not have a dashing Bond girl for him to charm the pants off of; although that may have been a bit incongruous to the narrative.

If there is one complaint that I could posit about Bond here; it's that he doesn't do much in the way of actual intelligence work. At one point, he throws a few pounds into the local rumor mill to see if he gets any nibbles; but that's all pretty much on par with what you might see on an episode of The First 48.

Secondary characters; well, an old friend of Bond's - Duncan MacDonald - is a solid addition. Other familiar Bond dramatis personae such as M and Moneypenney, on the other hand, are little more than name drops.

Then, there is our villain, Kaminski. Sadly, this was the biggest misfire here. Whereas we can often complain about a villains tendency towards expository dialogue preceding their demise; by the end of this story, we have little idea about any solid motive. There wasn't enough given to let us hate this guy; thereby making it difficult for us to garner any satisfaction out of what happens to him.

Story: The concept, in theory, is solid. Meikle has a nice concept in what I'll just term the 'Green'. In essence, it is some kind of object or artifact that allows for mass mind-control. The problem, again, comes in lack of a supporting story for it. What is the beginning and end? Where did it come from; and to what purpose is the drive for seeing its true power unleashed?

On the other hand; we can appreciate the danger of 'dancing in the Green' when we see it as a parallel for the spread of Communism at the onset of the Cold War. There are no indications in this tale that state exactly when it occurs; until, that is, a hint at the end places it in probability around the early 60's. If we appraise the story by dint of this metric; then we can accept that the fact that the Green seeks to rob all sense of individual liberty is frightening enough; and indeed epitomizes all that Bond has fought against.

Meikle writes with a very nice, descriptive style. As mentioned; it makes for a Bond that 'feels' like Bond. The action scenes are brisk, and well-choreographed. His detailing of locations is a bit hit-or-miss. With Bond stories; you often hope for exotic locales. Here, you get Alaska and back home in the UK. For the scenes in Britain, Meikle falls into a habit of mentioning landmarks and such by name. I don't mind having Google open to look up places I am not familiar with; but I needed a little more in the way of a description that made this or that location feel relevant to its inclusion. It helps with the reader immersion.

All in all, a very good story. A little slow at the start; lots of twists and turns in the middle, and a rousing ending. What more could you ask for?

Looking at the few criticisms, it may seem as though I did not like this story much. However, on the contrary, there are so many good things about it. Also, I finished reading this, and writing the review a few days ago, but there is just something about this story that sticks with you. It lingers within your consciousness, much like the "Green" itself.

Mindbreaker:

Next up, we have a novella by Ed Erdelac. Now, I've been riding on a high from Erdelac's work ever since his phenomenal anthology, Angler In Darkness. Obviously, my expectations for this story were fairly high.

I'm happy to report; I was not disappointed in the least.

Mindbreaker is simply a masterwork. It has, in every aspect, the look and feel of a Bond movie (or novel, for that matter; however, the writing here has a definite cinematic flair to it). Also, the addition of the "strange" elements are done in an excellent manner as well.

Mindbreaker begins with a head-fake: a seemingly normal job for 007 as the Crown Princess has been abducted by what appears to be Middle Eastern fanatics.

Of course, nothing is as it seems - or ever will be again. This is no standard outing; princess rescue mission for Bond. Instead, he finds himself seconded to an even more clandestine division than his own MI6: a shadowy group known as the "O" Division. His new orders involve exactly no princesses; but boil down to the extraction of two scientists in Cairo, and a whole lot of "need to know".

Armed with the barest framework of available intelligence; bond sets off for Egypt. What awaits him is both exciting and terrifying.

Before we look at the separate aspects of the story; let's ponder for a moment a shortlist of the ingredients that one usually finds in a Bond adventure: a capable, sexy Bond girl; a deadly, sexy villainess (and both with ludicrous, innuendo-laden names? check!), a tougher than nails antagonist, dryly humorous one liners, top of the line sports cars, exotic locations, and unique 'gadgets'. And yes, these are all present in Mindbreaker.

Characters: Another winning representation of Bond here. Erdelac's Bond is suave and debonair, but also practical, pragmatic, and lethal. He is also a bit of a damaged superspy; nearing mandatory retirement, he has also suffered greatly courtesy of some mental tinkering and brainwashing courtesy of the Russkies. This Bond is rightfully leery and cynical of the outlandish entities that O Division is pitching to him as gospel; the question becomes: as he realizes bit by bit the validity of their existence, will he possess the proper mental capacity to surmount the odds?

Bond girl Petra "Pet" Bottoms makes for a great character here as well. One of the scientists to be rescued; she also has ties with the mysterious O Division. Characters like her fall squarely into one of two categories: asset or nuisance; with the majority getting lumped into the latter. Luckily, due to Erdelac's strong character development, Bottoms is definitely in the former.

As mentioned, our villains are top-notch here. Beatrix "Trixie" Treat is a perfect example of a twisted, manipulative, malicious b-word. And, the other antagonist, Fesche, starts out seemingly as another hulking henchman; only to showcase surprising depth, resilience, and cunning.

Also, although I cannot detail it too much due to possible spoilers; both of them are already in deep with the powers that be surrounding the titular Mindbreaker (the truth of which is terrifyingly impressive).

Lastly, a character that deserves great praise is that of D.; the head of the secretive O Division. A truly odd character; in appearance much like John Lennon in Yellow Submarine, he is seemingly the polar opposite of the traditional M. However, he is a true mastermind with a finger on the pulse of knowledge that could turn the strongest minds into jelly.

Secondary Characters: Very good as well. In Mindbreaker, we get appearances from old favorites like M and Moneypenny that carry a feel of authenticity; not just name-dropping. Erdelac also gives us memorable characters such as 008 - William Ibaka, who I'd love to see more stories showcasing.

I'm going to list the Princess here as a secondary character. Her appearances bookend the story; and she is actually fleshed out quite well. There is a realness, as well as a genuine sadness to her, that allows for the reader to be truly sympathetic with her. Even when she does a stupid action; it's clear that it is a natural action predicated upon a diet of misinformation that she couldn't conceivably had had the ability to overcome.

Action: The pacing and action here are unbelievable. Bond stories should have action, intrigue, and romance. There should be no room for slow pacing or boredom. At roughly 200 pages, Mindbreaker straddles the line between long novella and short novel. The sheer amount of action crammed into that rather economical page count is pretty impressive.

As for the action scenes themselves, they are masterfully planned and executed. Erdelac knows to keep Bond a lethal, dirty fighter when up close, and a crack shot when the Walther is in play. There is no need for long, protracted brawls, or twirling gun play. Also, I must mention one action scene - involving Corsican mobsters attacking a train - that is one of the better sequences that I have read in quite a while.

The 'Strange' Factor: Ah, now we get to the crux of the matter. Where Into The Green offers something of the unknown for Bond to combat; in Mindbreaker Erdelac opts to toss Bond into the mind-breaking world of Lovecraftian/Cthulhu mythos. I haven't read any of his other Lovecraftian tales; but from what I can see in display here, he is one of the few authors who can get it right. Far too many authors try to go for the shock and horror of describing the elder horrors - yet, the true horror is in knowing that they exist; that they've always existed. True abominations just out of sight; itching at the periphery of our vision. And, sometimes, they find a way to tear through the gossamer-thin dimension that separates us from them.

Erdelac wisely opts for a slow, easy transition; incrementally introducing the more strange elements. We come to acceptance at the same speed as Bond; and, by the genuinely frightening climax, we have near eschewed Fleming entirely and fallen into the fathomless depths of Lovecraft's mind.

There are so many more details that I could pack in there; but I think it best for the reader to enjoy the ride on their own.

And then, the whole thing ends with a superbly written, truly poignant ending.

In closing, I want to mention, again, how much I truly enjoyed this anthology. As we all know, not all crossovers are meant to be - they don't all yield that coveted "chocolate and peanut butter" combination. Honestly, I was a bit wary about this one - wasn't there just a tad too much incongruity between Fleming's superspy and Lovecraft's Elder Gods? Luckily, the contributions of Meikle and Erdelac show that it is truly possible, especially when the authors respect and understand the source material. I mean, given past scenarios, supervillains, etc., we know that the Bond universe is fertile ground for the outlandish. So, perhaps, a Lovecraftian pairing had been written in the stars all along.

Also, it bears noting that each story comes with an accompanying picture. I truly liked the picture for Into the Green; as it offers a great portrait of Bond himself (whenever I read Bond lit; I tend to picture a surlier, burlier Roger Moore; but to each their own). The picture for Mindbreaker is a bit more generic; focusing on an underwater discovery by Bond and Bottoms. A much better pic would've been one in this vein:

Keep this in mind towards the climax....

So, again, if you can, give Bond Unknown a shot. My only complaint at this point is that it isn't a 400 page anthology, with even more stories in it. Perhaps if this one is successful....

Head on over to April Moon Books and order your copy today (only print for now). Support small press! For, without publishing houses like this; these titles don't get to see the light of day.

Visit William Meikle here.

Check out Ed Erdelac's blog here.

And once more, thank you Neil Baker for the privilege of reading this for review. Great work!




Monday, August 28, 2017

Angler In Darkness

Angler in Darkness by Edward M. Erdelac. A short story anthology, originally published August, 2017. Approx. 329 pages.


Here we have a collection of tales, most collected from previous publications; with some that were previously unpublished. You have a fairly diverse group here; starting off with a slew of weird Westerns, and then giving us a mix of kaiju stories, Irish mob tales with a supernatural twist, tales inspired by Japanese folklore, and unique takes on classic stories.

This is one of the rare anthologies where, quite frankly, every story is a winner. There are no middling or marginal entries here. If you haven't read any of Erdelac's work before, consider this a perfect primer, or sampling platter. I really enjoy the interests from which he sources his material, and he always seeks tirelessly to put fresh/unique twists on all of them. Many stories have elements of the weird and horrific, and he makes sure to grant these takes legitimacy via logical execution. Also, he writes some of the best, bloodiest action scenes out there.

I will say that the arrangement of the stories threw me a bit. The collection is front-loaded with the Western tales, and then the remaining stories are somewhat randomly ordered. Also, there were a few typos throughout - averaging about one or two per entry. No dealbreaker for me; but they are out there.

But, again, great stories, and a sweet cover to boot! Here are my takes on the individual entries. Enjoy!

The Mound of the Night Panther: The first story in the collection tells the tale of Auguste Oudin; a trapper of French and Indian heritage who sets off on hunt for gold, and instead unearths a terrible history lesson.

After bringing some priests down to the States from Canada, Oudin barters with a local Indian boy for a gold-flecked gaming piece. To him, this is a veritable treasure map, leading to a claim, and prosperity. However, what he finds instead are a collection of huge monumental mounds; too massive to be barrows, and permeating with a palpable aura of foreboding.

Setting up camp, Oudin finds himself approached by an Indian elder; who begins to share with him the history of the sacred land...

Ok, you can tell from the premise that all will probably not go well here. However, what makes this story pop is Erdelac's respect for the source material, attention to detail, and talent for portraying vivid, brutal acts of violence. Native American lore is ripe with great material; and in this tale we hear of the Mishipijiw, the terrifying "water panther". We also find ourselves awash in the blood-soaked pages of this culture's history.

On a personal level, there is another reason why this story resonated with me. I remember when I was a little kid, we went on a school trip to the Museum of Natural History. Well, actually, it was a fairly popular school trip destination, but I remember one time most of all. Maybe I was the right age for being impressionable to the material, maybe it was a great tour guide. But in this visit, I first learned the story of Romulus and Remus, as well as the Indian tribes that played games in great arenas, with their very lives on the line. And now, Erdelac has incorporated elements from both legends; tales from separate continents, into one powerful short story.

All in all, a direct premise yields anything but a simple story. Erdelac pulls you back in time, drags you through a hallucinogenic nightmare, and leaves you in a place where the tenuous membrane between reality and legend isn't just blurred, it is torn to shreds. Great story to kick off an anthology.

Killer of the Dead: Here we have another 'weird Western'; but in this case, it's a fast, violent piece with all the surprise and power of a sudden gut-punch. The premise here is simple and direct: a young Indian boy, staying up late to greet the men of the village when they return from a hunt, bears witness to a quartet of pale riders as they massacre they village. There is a twist, of course; these riders are not just typical white men: they are not only in for wanton slaughter; they also suck the very life out of their victims.

Killer of the Dead gives us a setup, a conflict, and a resolution; but the execution ensures that it yields much more than that. Erdelac focuses on the right details to make each character identifiable and memorable (especially the villains). This is a difficult task when working within a very tight word count. The violence is also well done; brutal and pulpy. But, perhaps my highest praise can be awarded to the "vampire elements": for example, the imagery of their cheeks drawing in as they take deep drinks from their prey is something that sticks with you.

This is a great little story. As said, it's very short, and very violent. There is no expository backstory involved; but the details given tell you all you need to know. Actually, allow me to correct myself - there is a bit of backstory, if you take the minute to read the author's intro. Here, Erdelac lists some of the inspirations that went into this tale; including the criminally underrated vampire film Near Dark.

Bigfoot Walsh: The third story in the anthology is also a Western tale. Here we have the first person POV of  Keidel, a liberal-minded Dutch doctor who helps both settlers as well as local Indians. He joins up with a group of Texas Rangers to investigate a brutal raid (read: murder spree) that the Rangers are eager to pin upon the Comanche Indians (with whom the locals have a tenuous treaty in place). With the dual hope of preserving this treaty, as well as assisting any survivors, he sets off with them.

Along the way, they meet up with the titular Walsh, a quite literal Sasquatch type who is an excellent tracker/pathfinder for the Rangers. He has some leads of his own in his mind as to who the culprits are, and the group sets out with new purpose. No one, in the end, is quite prepared for what they are about to face.

Bigfoot Walsh is yet another excellent entry. Violence is the very lifeblood here; and of the first three stories, this is the one that yields the most primal ferocity and pent-up rage; as the story escalates from a routine search into something akin to Eaters of the Dead.

On top of all the other great elements here, it is the character of Walsh that seals the deal. Erdelac makes him into such an interesting entity that he outright steals every scene that he is in.

If there is one thing that I could cite as a detraction to the tale, it's the character of Keidel. I know he is integral in that he will 'bear witness' to what transpires, but I think he could've done more to show his overall mettle in the climactic action piece. Other than that, solid all around.

Devil's Cap Brawl: This is the story that first introduced me to Erdelac's work; and I originally read it in the Kaiju Rising anthology. So, I'll just copy paste that review here:

This was a fun one. Devil's Cap Brawl is set in the Dead West universe (also published by Ragnarok, I've read a bit of the first book - Those Poor, Poor, Bastards by Tim Marquitz - and really enjoyed it).

In this story, workers for a railroad baron literally unearth a long-buried miscreant monster as they go about blasting through the titular mountain. Luckily for them, they find that they have a rather unconventional ally on their side. I really don't want to get too much into it, for the sake of avoiding spoilers.

The writing here, as in the other Dead West books, is balls to the wall and full throttle. A lot of the stories in this anthology have curses, but this takes it to a new level, peppered throughout with some quite politically incorrect language. The fact that the protagonists nickname was bestowed upon him for the sheer volume of blasphemous language he uses is one clue. The fact that he is also a brash, back street brawling Irishman in the 1800's in charge of Indians and Chinamen should give you another hint of what kind of language is in store.

Erdelac does a great job in painting the scenery, fleshing out his monster, and choreographing the action. I had a bit of trouble at first with the "good guy", but he made it work. This story is the badass bastard offspring of the frantic coupling of classic Western pulp tales and good old fashioned giant monster stories.

Spearfinger: In Spearfinger, a Cherokee half-breed sheriff named Ben Burnham is on the trail of a town ne'er do well who has committed a pretty heinous crime. As his quarry flees up a mountain, attempting an egress to Arkansas, Burnham, the victim's loved ones, and all else involved find themselves within the domain of a horrifying creature known as Spearfinger.

Although this is another Western story, Erdelac flexes some serious horror chops in this outing. He imbues his characters with enough depth and personal baggage to make them all empathetic, an his depiction of the titular creature is pretty bone-rattling. But his best work is in the descriptions and detailing, shown in such colorful metaphors as comparing the click-clacking of branches in the wind to "the applause of skeletal hands". That's good stuff right there.

See also some influences from other books and movies peppered throughout. The crime committed by the slow-minded Waterback carries shades of Cormac McCarthy's "Child of God". There are also scenes evocative of the body-snatcher horrors of "The Thing".

This is a great story that I will avoid going into too much detail on, so as to avoid spoilers. But it is Erdelac at his violent, terrifying top form.

In Thunder's Shadow: I really enjoyed the premise of this story. Set during the Bone Wars, we follow academic Calvin Pabodie and his grizzled guide Neb Bukes as he sets out to research the area where a fossil was discovered.

In this story, Erdelac gleefully fleshes out a full-blown dinosaur adventure based upon the old, staged Huachuca/Thunderbird photos. Coupling his already mentioned versatile and colorful prose with truly memorable characters yields a yarn the spoke directly to my younger, dinosaur-obsessed self.

Pabodie is a classic, textbook academic character on a quest for a new discovery. Bukes, on the other hand, absolutely steals the show. He is a cantankerous combination of Rooster Cogburn and Matthew McConaughey's character in Reign of Fire.

I cannot laud enough Erdelac's job in making the pteranodons seem 'real' here. Instead of just trying to impress the reader with size or danger, he makes them living flesh; as if they are terrifying entities that you can reach out and touch - or ones that could reach out and snatch you.

Also, this story has some of the most vivid and imaginative violence in the whole book. I mean, in how many stories does the protagonist get knocked out cold by a donkey leg blown off in an explosion? You tell me.

The Blood Bay: I am reviewing these stories as I read them; but I'm predicting that this might just be the best tale in the anthology. The Blood Bay, as Erdelac explains in the introduction, plays off of the narrative of Steinbeck's 'The Red Pony' (one of my least favorite books of all time), and then ups the ante by incorporating such legendary equines as the Man-Eating Horses of Diomedes and Alexander the Great's own steed, Bucephalus.

In The Blood Bay, we meet Jonas, a sullen young boy whose father has absconded for greener pastures; leaving him in the care of his alcoholic mother and bitter grandmother. After a gruesome turn of events, his father comes to collect him, and try to integrate him into the better life that he has made for himself. This is no easy transition for a boy already molded by bitterness; although a glimmer of hope soon arrives in the form of the titular steed.

Gifted to Jonas by his appeasing father, there is a wildness and fierceness about this new horse; as well as something unsettling to all those around. As misfortune begins to falls upon Jonas' new 'family', we quickly realize that this is not just a wild-spirited horse; it is no less than a creature transplanted from the aforementioned mythologies. And, while we see the thin veneer of the 'perfect life' of Jonas' father, Famous Fallon, erode over the course of the tale, we cannot help but stare in awe at the perfect bond between the boy and his horse.

It is, indeed, the depth of the characters that make this story the minor masterpiece that it is. It is the strength of these characters that bolster the premise, which is so ludicrous that it is bold. I was blown away by the character of Jonas - here we have a true representation of a boy hardened way too early in life, due primarily to the actions of those who should have looking out for him instead of themselves. The harsh life lessons he learns early on are the drivers for his tightly coiled anger and reticence. And, it frightens me to a degree; since I have seen boys my son's age, around where we live, who come from tough or broken homes, who carry themselves and speak much in the same way as Jonas. I find myself seeing their faces as I read the words coming out of his mouth.

The action and violence in this story is much like as in the other tales; it is dark, brutal, bloody, oftentimes sudden and shocking, but never over the top or superfluous to the narrative. It must be a difficult balance to strike; but it is done successfully here.

The Blood Bay is a frightening story that will likely haunt you for days after reading it.

The Exclusive: According to the author intro for this tale, this one ties into the Merkabah Rider series, which has definitely been on the TBR horizon for a while. This tale might be responsible for moving it up a few rungs in reading expediency.

In The Exclusive, we meet Barry Twiggs, a reporter at a New Mexico newspaper who most decidedly opts to step on precisely the wrong toes (continuously) when he commits to printing all the dirt he can dig up on local magnate Tom Cotter. This leads to harassment, assaults, and, finally his untimely death. However, in this surprisingly clever and deep story, death is just the beginning. For, in this story, death brings Death, and Twiggs offers the proposal to hear His side of the story.

I don't know how much the Angel of Death appears in the Merkabah Rider series; but, if he is handled this well in them, he might just be the kind of scene-stealer that Death in the Discworld series always was.

The best part of this yarn come in when Erdelac uses Death (or, properly, Samael) as a mouthpiece to recount happenings from the very beginning of time. We get hints about Satan's fall from grace, and of Adam and Lilith's earliest transgressions and petulance. These are very engrossing and interesting portions.

Erdelac also makes Samael a sympathetic soul: a being who is, in turns, stoic, withdrawn, rageful, dutiful, and mournful. But, what allows us to find commonality with him is that he has, like all of us, suffered at one point from that most tragic, and deeply felt hurt of all: the loss of love.

The portrayal of Twiggs is well done, also. Personally, his banter with Samael gets a bit too cute at times, but I can understand the Erdelac is trying to keep some levity flowing through some otherwise sombre material. Plus, as we can see over the full course of the story, Twiggs is not just a one-note narrator. Like Death, he has a story to tell as well. And, it is a truly heartbreaking one.

Tell Tom Tildrum: Ah, yes, there was some really good stuff in this story. Although, I will say, to truly enjoy this tale at its fullest, you might want to do a bit of homework first. Definitely read the author's intro, as well as Erdelac's blog post about what went into making this tale. Then, if you aren't familiar with them, read up on some of the notorious exploits of "white hunters" as well as the Happy Valley Set.

So, this story first appeared in an anthology called 'Tales from the Bell Chair', the premise of which posited an exclusive club which members could only join by regaling the current members with a shocking personal tale, and having it be riveting enough to garner their approval. Nice. Very cool.

In Tell Tom Tildrum, the prospective new member is one Captain Howe, who will choose to tell a certain story from among his drink and drug-addled days of running with the Happy Valley folks. The tale he tells recounts a lion hunt that goes horribly, horribly wrong. And that's all I'll say on that, so as to avoid spoilers.

Erdelac's 'method writing', making the setting so palpable that it allows for complete reader immersion, is what truly elevates the story here. It is not just making the horizon feel alive; there is something great in how he captures the mindset of these people; for whom their personal hedonism allowed them to blithely eschew anything that even remotely resembled a moral compass.

For me, the end sequence came off as a bit over the top - well, to be honest, I never wanted the story to leave Kenya - but, it does make sense in the tying up the narrative, so I can't complain. It also incorporates the angle of citing the classic fable "The King o' the Cats". Plus, the closing lines are, in equal amounts, beautiful and jarring.

Mighty Nanuq: As previously mentioned, my first exposure to Erdelac came from his Kaiju Rising contribution. Little did I know just how many 'giant monster' tales he has under his belt. Here we have another stellar kaiju outing from him, with a tale that originally appeared in Mechanoid Press' anthology "Monster Earth". I guess the premise in that collection is that each country has a "national kaiju" of sorts; akin to the country specific jaegers in Pacific Rim. Not sure if all of these stories tie in to WWII, however.

So, in Mighty Nanuq, Erdelac chooses to focus on the titular creature, the local representative for - Canada. Well, not exactly the first country to pop into one's mind when veering towards discourse on the Great War, but Erdelac has stated that he wanted to do a story focusing on the Inuit, and this was a grand opportunity.

Nanuq focuses on Hal Anawak, who is retiring from his post in Canadian Intelligence; and his relationship with his estranged, angry young activist nephew Matthew. Actually, I should clarify on the importance of the activist angle real quick - in the backdrop of this story is the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Native Americans in the late 60's. I had never in fact heard of this story; and I appreciate an author who can send you running to the history books without shoving an agenda down your throat.

Matthew is more of a rally attending, fist pumping activist; and he harbors a bit of resentment for his uncle, whom he believes to have sold his heritage to become the white man's stooge. Over the course of the story, he is going to get a real education.

Erdelac manages to pack a lot into this story. I don't know if it is a part of this anthology, or just this story, that these monster stories showcase a relationship between the monster and a "master" of sorts (one who as either direct control or influence; with Nanuq it is the latter). As Hal helps Matthew come to grips with his shaman lineage, we get a flashback to WWII, and how Hal began his work with the Canadian government. This is where we get to the meat of the kaiju action, as Nanuq does battle with an abominable, stitched together Nazi horror.

Kudos on a well-choreographed battle, too. Erdelac hit all the right notes on a giant monster scrap - size, scope, and brutality. On paper, Nanuq might seem a bit bland - just a huge polar bear wit bright blue eyes. But, in the finished product, he is a sight to behold.

Erdelac shows strong finesse in other detailing aspects as well. In describing a Nazi U-Boat and its crew, he perfectly portrays the shape of it and the different uniforms of the crew in basically the space of a paragraph. He does this by stressing the important details and letting the reader's imagination fill in the blanks.

Finally, the story caps off with a return to the 'present' of 1969. And, in tying things up, he integrates elements of duty, heritage, and racial politics, all without teetering into the exploitative or hamfisted. No mean feat, there.

A Haunt of Jackals: Every good anthology deserves a follow-up, it stands to reason. So, there Mechanoid followed up Monster Island with 'Betrayal on Monster Island', which again features a contribution by Erdelac.

In Haunt of Jackals, Erdelac gets to play around more with his created Nazi "Monstrum" program. Here, we meet a group of Mossad Nazi hunters as they go deep into Paraguay to retrieve the Monstrum equivalent of Dr. Mengele.

Of course, the doctor has not been idle in all of these years since the war. And, as our protagonist, Boaz, attempts to close the deal on the pick-up, he is treated to a taste of the doctor's efforts.

Remember, in the Monster Island world, each country gets its own monster. Dr. Austerlitz' calling is in making monsters. It piqued the interest of the Nazis and their deep coffers during the war; and now, it has attracted new suitors - the Mukhbarat, Iraq's Intelligence Agency. This, of course, does not bode well at all for Boaz's new home state of Israel.

What we have in 'Haunt of Jackals' is 99% of a great kaiju story. Why only 99%? Well, let's heap the praise before we pick the nits.

We definitely get a solid lead in Boaz. Erdelac has made this aging, hardened Nazi-hunter into a real person. Boaz has survived the camps; whereas his family did not. He carries the wide palette of emotions that I am sure many Jews did as they made Israel their new home, and tried to find some closure with what had happened: anger, sadness, frustration, fear, and hope. Boaz knows that his shelf life is expiring, and he wants to go out with a big catch.

We also get some fantastic kaiju, yet again. Once again, there are creatures that seem little more than giant animals (in this case, the pair of striped hyenas), but what Erdelac has done to make them memorable (especially their breath weapons) is extremely commendable. On the Israeli side, there is a defender as well. Not surprisingly, it is a type of golem; but the execution brings to mind a type of Krav Maga Daimajin.

Another important aspect of kaiju stories is location. I'm sure one of the best parts of planning a giant monster tale is determining just where they are going to destroy. Are they going to take down famous landmarks? The author's hometown that he or she always hated?

The important thing in bringing these areas to life, of course, is making sure to capture what actually gave that area its importance. You don't just talk about smashing apart New York City and describe the buildings falling; you need to make it feel like NYC for authenticity.

The point I am trying to make here is that Erdelac does this in an astounding manner during the story's climax in Jerusalem. Through Boaz's eyes, we can truly process the importance of the religious landmarks being destroyed. Giving us a sense of the true value of these monuments increases the urgency driving all efforts to stop the rogue creatures. This touch adds a real sense of reader investment.

So, I guess that brings us to the one thing I had an issue with - the ending. And that is; it all ends way too abruptly. I'm not talking about an ambiguous ending. I literally mean you may go back and forth on that page, expecting a new chapter to start because that is really how suddenly it all ends. I thought perhaps there was some kind of error, but this story is bookended on both sides with well-chosen Bible passages, so I knew that it was over.

Perhaps it was setting the stage for more stories with Boaz? If that's the case, I'm on board. Apart from the abrupt end, this is a fantastic kaiju tale, with a unique choice for setting that was executed in a fantastic manner.

The Better To See You: According to the author intro, the idea for this entry arose from some story swapping between Erdelac and his seven-year old daughter. What it is is a new, modern take on the classic Little Red Riding Hood story.

The Better To See You is the shortest tale in the book so far. But, within that economic page count, it delivers a lot of evocative, image heavy prose, as well as palpable tension and danger.

I really can't say much more about it. We all know the origin story. Going from that, it's best to just sit back and watch what daughter and father did with a modern, alternate take.

Conviction: What a raw, powerful story here. In Conviction, we meet Abassi, a young boy growing up in a truly hellish landscape - the former Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. Abassi is a bright boy with real artistic talent - all skills that are usually suffocated beneath the broken families, oppressive poverty, and oppressive gang presence/control that ghettos are often so rife with.

But, there's more to this story. Actually, it is something that has been done before. This is one of those stories where the theme is "if you believe hard enough, it will become real". This sounds routine until you run it through the lens of the absolutely hellish landscape which Abassi must walk everyday.

Continuously harassed by the local gangs, plagued by the memories of what they did to his sister, and even talked down to by his own grandmother, Abassi finds a glimmer of hope in Ms. Orozco (a guidance counselor or social worker, or someone in that capacity); only to have that one glimmering ray of benevolence yanked away from him; consumed by the ever-hungry furnace of ghetto misery.

Once that happens, Abassi will use the power of belief, as well as his artistic talent, to paint new pictures.

So, if The Blood Bay is going down as my favorite story in the anthology, then this is a close second. As I mentioned, the premise of "belief becoming real" has been done before, but I've never seen it done like this. Not many authors can effectively capture a prose snapshot of the projects, but Erdelac does it here. I seriously cannot lavish enough praise on the legitimacy that his attention to authenticity has imbued this story with. From the desolate panorama, to the spot on 'hood dialect, even down to the gang-specific writing on the walls, he has truly brought the projects to life.

Then, there are the "pictures" themselves. What I truly love about this story is that, at the turning point where Abassi begins to make his pictures real, you cannot tell for sure if this is literally happening; or if it is the coping mechanism of an unreliable narrator. The pictures themselves are terrifying in proposal, without going into exploitative, full detail. Erdelac is a shrewd enough author to give the reader enough notes so that they can fill in the details in their own minds; and then be horrified by the results. There is some amazing stuff here; and we have to come to terms with how satisfying it is to the vengeful spirits within us.

And through this all, Abassi remains a strong protagonist. He is never held up as a cheap prop to curry sympathy for those whose dreams and talents are crushed on a daily basis by the ghetto meat grinder. As outlandish as the story proceedings become; he never turns into a cartoonish villain. Abassi is, from beginning to end; a smart boy with a good heart that has become hardened way before his time by the environment which he lives in. And, in the end, all he wanted to do was draw a beautiful picture.

Crocodile: When I was reading the descriptions of the stories in this anthology, this is one of the ones that sealed the day. What a deliciously ludicrous premise: a Pizza Hut cashier at a seedy Interstate truck stop falls in love with a modern day (read:sparkly type) vampire. That's great stuff. As if to up the ante, Erdelac even finds time to use elements of the classic Peter Pan story as the underpinning for the narrative.

It's fairly apparent that Erdelac is having a fun time with this story. What we have is a stinging indictment on the current state of vampire fandom. The observations run the gamut of shrewd quips right up to blatant mockery. The girls of my youth that touched themselves to Lestat have grown up and spawned a legion of teenyboppers that gush and fawn over sparkling pansies like Edward Cullen. And Gwendolyn, our protagonist here, is a prime example of this demographic. There's a good deal of fun poked at her narrow-mindedness and naivete; even though there is a real kind of sadness to her narrow little world; a world of dirty, lusty truck drivers that only the attention of a pale, fanged, waifish pretty boy can offer liberation from.

Taking all of this outlandish, and seemingly incongruous inputs, and making an engaging, cohesive story out of them was no mean feat, but Erdelac has done it. I won't teeter into spoiler territory by going into too much detail; but even at the point where you can see that things are not going well, there are some fresh surprises. Also, the attention to detail; as well as an authentic sense of place, really bring the location to life. This story blends the levity and tension of the scenario in a seemingly effortless manner. Cannot recommend enough.

Philopatry: In this story, an old South Boston priest seeks out a former altar boy turned hitman to solicit his 'services'. It turns out that there has been a recent string of gruesome murders; and the priest, Father O'Malley, has come in possession of the identity of the killer via the confession booth. It's a tough call for our erstwhile killer, Terry Dunne. But, given the heinous nature of the killings, he opts to help put an end to them.

Again, I really don't want to go into too many details here, for there are some surprises. Then again, Erdelac gives the biggest of these away in the author's intro, so there's that. There's also something really interesting in those notes: it turns out Erdelac had written an initial version of this book in High School; we have no idea how rough or raw that version was, but if the framework was the same, it's very commendable.

So again, without letting loose with spoilers; I can still comment on all the things done right here. Again, we have characters that are superbly fleshed out; as the reader you feel as though you are in their heads; grappling with their inner demons. I haven't spent much time in Boston myself, but there was a real sense of placement.

And then there is the violence. Most of the stories in this anthology have had some fairly brutal scenes in them, but the action scenes in Philopatry are some of the best, bar none.

The whole story reads with a seamless, cinematic quality; culminating in a rousing sequence, and capping off with a scene that begs for a serialized continuation.

Also, kudos for the history lesson on St. Mercurius.

Sea Of Trees: The interest in Aokigahara, Japan's 'suicide forest', has been a true cultural phenomenon, spread like wildfire courtesy of the internet. Erdelac offers a fresh story here, using the forest as his basis. As he notes in his introduction; instead of doing a ghost story, he focuses on how the occurrences of suicides within the forest spike in correlation with the close of the fiscal year. He uses this as a springboard for the plain and simple tragedy that is the inarguable fact that we are ruled to such a large extent by money. Our security in our quality of life is tied to designed paper; or, in modern times, dancing numbers on a computer.

This brings us to our protagonist, Manabu. It is easy to sympathize with, and, for many of us, outright identify with Manabu (especially those of us that weathered the Great Recession). Working insane hours in an accounting job; Manabu should have been able to carve out some semblance of an enjoyable life. But, in modern day Japan, still unable to right itself after the burst of the economic bubble of the 80's, life is a never-ending hamster wheel of exorbitant rents, bills, and loans due. So, even with a decent position; Manabu is still living paycheck to paycheck, over 15 hours a day, and only barely keeping his nose above water.

Correct that. He was. Now, after the close of the fiscal year, his company decided that "he was a redundant expenditure", and so, he has no options, and no safety net.

Then again, he has no family, and no children. By that metric, an easy egress via a stroll into the suicide forest seems a logical solution.

I never expected this kind of take on the Aokigahara legend. I also never expected the execution to be this good, either. The opening scenes were kind of a crushing blow; bringing to mind a lot of painful memories of when financial burdens were a lot more oppressive. Also, the scenes with Manabu's mother never failed to bring a tear to my eye. It really shows us how tragic it is that that pure, honest maternal love has to be replaced by indentured servitude to currency.

The tone switches gears a bit towards the middle, as Manabu meets a 'grave robber' of sorts, allowing for a bit of honest discourse and introspection.

The 'third act', if that's what we should call it, adds a bit of dark humor to the dark material. I really did not see the story panning out like this, but it does tie the story up nicely.

Read this story; get you priorities in life straight, and don't take anything for granted.

Thy Just Punishments: From the Aokigahara suicide forest, we find ourselves transported back to South Boston. Once again we have the church seen in Philopatry, and a tenuous reference to that story (a mention of Terry Dunne heading to jail dates this tale as a bit before that one). In Punishments, we meet Father Tim O'Herlihey, a real dirtbag of the cloth who drones through the monotonous rituals of his calling, as he dips his fingers into the collection boxes to support his habit of betting (and losing) at the track. He also has a side gig as well - as a "occult hitman" to the Irish mob. I won't go into the detail of what qualifies as an occult hitman; it is a really cool concept, executed with precision by Erdelac.

The Just Punishments is another of the shorter entries in the anthology; and, according to the author notes, one of Erdelac's first outings with putting a humorous touch in his tales. I'm guessing that makes it an earlier story for him; since he really seems to have found his stride in imbuing deft (and sometimes overt) touches of humor through his tales.

The best thing about this story is the fact that O'Herlihey's main foil is a shriveled little Irish biddy; transplanted from a neighboring church undergoing renovations. She sees through his B.S. with a clarity beyond the capacity of her rheumy old eyes, and harries him at every turn with a doggedness that type usually only reserves for clipping coupons and bingo night.

If there is anything I could recommend for this story; it'd be a little more info on the amount of money O'Herlihey has pilfered, and the true extent of his gambling habit. Also, an idea of just how many 'hits' he has performed; all of these could solidify his scumbag status a bit more and allow us to truly enjoy him getting his "just punishments".

On a personal note, I really enjoyed the author's intro here. Being raised Catholic as well, there were some similar stories here. Erdelac tells of the incident that turned him off of church, as well as a story about a little old lady. For me, the incident that turned me off of church involved a little old lady and an asshole priest. Just putting that out there; for it seems that as we get further into the book, Erdelac opens more and more in his notes; making them just as interesting as the stories.

The Wrath Of Benjo: With this story, Erdelac truly saves the weirdest for last. The concept for Wrath of Benjo takes root in the idea of tsukomogami, a Japanese legend that postulates that tools, or items, can acquire a spirit after a century. In this unique tale, we meet a toilet, long idle, that comes self-aware after existing for a hundred years.

Crossing paths with this long-forgotten, yet eternally proud commode is Araki, a news photographer who finds himself bouncing along the back roads of the boonie village in the midst of a tumultuous storm. However, the storm is not the only source of turbulence; there is also a roiling, raging unrest in his bowels. Seeking any port in the storm; he comes across the forgotten Benjo.

Then, in his naivete, he makes the error of doubting Benjo's studious attention to his duties.

Not a good idea when your ass is literally on the line.

What follows is a true gross-out climax; and I'll just leave it to you to read since it is probably the shortest, yet wildest, tale in the book.

The only things that didn't really work here was that it decidedly felt like a modern day story; yet Erdelac had to mention advanced technology in other areas of Japan to suggest that the events transpire in the future. Since Benjo is a Western style toilet, his hundred year sentience wouldn't occur until later this century. Still, a lot of gross fun here; even if I was wincing almost the entire time.

You can get your copy of Angler in Darkness here. At $3.99 for 18 great stories, it's a steal.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya (Haruhi Suzumiya Vol. 1)

The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. English translation originally published by Yen Press, 2009. Approx. 200 pages (some interior illustrations).

As mentioned in other reviews, I've been out of the anime loop for well over a decade. I am aware of some of the powerhouse series that have come and gone within that span, but I've only just gotten around to trying to catch up on them. Also, I've mentioned how wonderful the prevalence of these light novel translations has become. I mean, talk about the best of both worlds - book format and anime themes. So, I decided to take a break from the SAO novels, both to allow me to catch up on the show, and avoid series fatigue. In doing so, I perused my local library's catalog of light novels and came upon this one. I knew that Haruhi Suzumiya had had a huge impact upon its release, so now was the time to see what all the hubbub was about. As I wait for one of my friends to lend me his copy of the series, I tore into this, the first light novel.

First, the blurb:

Haruhi holds the fate of the universe in her hands . . . lucky for you she doesn't know it!

Meet Haruhi - a cute, determined girl, starting high school in a city where nothing exciting happens and absolutely no one understands her.

Meet Kyon ­­- the sarcastic guy who sits behind Haruhi in homeroom and the only boy Haruhi has ever opened up to. His fate is now tied to hers.

Meet the S.O.S. Brigade - an after-school club organized by Haruhi with a mission to seek out the extraordinary. Oh, and their second mission? Keeping Haruhi happy . . . because even though she doesn't know it, Haruhi has the power to destroy the universe. Seriously.

The phenomenon that took Japan by storm - with more than 4.5 million copies sold - is now available in the first-ever English edition.

Fair enough cursory summary. And, to be honest, I really don't want to go into too many details, since it's a lot more fun to see them unfold as you turn the pages.

Even though Haruhi is the literal center of this universe, the story is told (via first person perspective) through the eyes of Kyon. Kyon is a young man, just entering his first year of high school, who finds himself sitting at a desk in front of this enigmatic and infamous young lady. A bond of sorts between them grows, perhaps due to Haruhi's declaration that she wants nothing to do with "ordinary" people, being much more interested in aliens, spies, and those with ESP (Kyon had, as a matter of fact, been lamenting over growing out of belief of just those kinds of entities in the prologue).

Haruhi is a bit of an odd bird; cute as a button, but bossy, domineering, and standoffish. With Kyon in tow, she proceeds to create the SOS Brigade, all to satisfy her quest of finding the interesting character types that she mentioned in her homeroom introduction. In the process, she enlists a few other members as well.

As the story progresses, each of these characters divulges to Kyon who they really are, and what their inherent interests in Haruhi are. These all seem to be along the lines of Haruhi being some god-like entity; one upon whom the actual fate of the world is contingent upon. One thing they all seem to agree upon is that Kyon is the linchpin to maintaining Haruhi's interest in keeping the world as it is.

Again, I don't want to go into too much more detail, for the sake of letting readers enjoy the story evolution on their own.

As far as English translations go, this is, without a doubt, one of the best that I have ever read. This is an immensely readable, accessible, and enjoyable book. I'm sure it was like that in its original Japanese text, and I'm glad it got a translation that does it justice. One particular highlight is in conveying the emotions behind what are usually facial responses in the anime; it isn't easy to transfer those moments to paper and prose, but in this novel it is done right.

Another thing I must praise is how the story grabs you and drags you along. I have to admit, at first I didn't see myself finishing this book - Kyon's sardonic humor makes him a great lead, but it is really hard to like Haruhi at first. Then, the reader finds themselves unwillingly dragged along by here - much like Kyon himself. There is something special about her there, that is for sure.

And then, before you know it, it's over. Now, I will probably read the next installments, but in my own humble opinion, this book works great as a one shot deal. I mean, it tells a complete story, with a wonderful, playfully ambiguous ending. It's the type of ending that is structured in a way that any conclusions that the reader draws can be validated with previous cues - a true payoff for the reader's investment.

This leaves the reader with a true mystery; should the book be taken literally, or is it all constructed within the imagination of an unreliable narrator such as Kyon? Again, I'll be seeing what direction they take it in the subsequent volumes, as well as the anime, but I'd recommend again enjoying this book as a standalone piece. It's well worth it.

Cover:

I think the hardcover edition of this book has a dustjacket with a more manga-inspired cover. This edition, the paperback, has the cover shown above. I really like this cover. The color and font are playful and eye-catching, and by just showing a silhouette, rather than an actual anime character, it doesn't isolate readers that might otherwise turn their noses up at a light novel.

The few interior illustrations are fairly basic. There are some nice color pics inside, as well as a welcome manga sample excerpt.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Terminator

The Terminator by Shaun Hutson. Originally published by Star, 1984. Approx. 165pgs.

One novelization that has definitely been on my radar this year is for The Terminator. I mean, this movie remains iconic, even over thirty years after its initial release. So, the curiosity surrounding how the novel turned out is quite high. I knew that Randall Frakes had done the novel work, and also that this book runs very high in the secondary market (lowest prices rarely fall below $30). However, I didn't realize until perusing some blogs lately that The Terminator actually had two novelizations. Indeed, it turns out that the Frakes book is actually the second one released; the first being penned by British author Shaun Hutson, best known for spinner-rack horror novels (as well as WWII books and some Westerns). Better yet, it is the more affordable of the two (I snagged this copy for about $6, after shipping), and most reviews of it were positive. So, I got a copy and tore right through it. How was it? Read on...

As with other novelizations, we have no idea what version of the script the author had to work with, or if anybody had already been cast. I will say this; Hutson's novel adheres very closely to the finished movie. Also, the characters are described well enough to assign the actors too (especially Traxler). There are some minor differences in background characters, and certain locations have different names as well (sadly, Tech Noir is known as Stoker's in the novel).

Now, knowing that the novel plays out very close to the movie, what then is the draw of reading the novel? It all falls on the writing style of the author. I was not familiar with Hutson prior to this novel, and I was interested to see how a horror specialist would handle this story, which actually does have some horror elements in it (I can remember being pretty scared of the Terminator skeleton as a 10 year old back in '84). Here's the thing: Hutson has a really sharp, detailed writing style that moves at a brisk pace. He is very descriptive, and shrewd enough to focus on the details that matter. Case in point; when describing a rainstorm that breaks a few days of continuous L.A. heat, he also describes how that torrential downpour - something that should be a welcome respite - actually releases all the saturated stench of the City. Growing up in a major city, in the same time period, this gave me PTSD-level flashbacks. He also employs a kind of colloquial, conversational tone as well. For example, when discussing some of the food at the restaurant Sarah works at, he outright calls it "junk". It might seem like poor or puerile writing, but believe me, when you are flipping the pages, it is all part of the flow. You don't always have to use lofty terms such as "gastrointestinal abomination"; sometimes junk is just junk. Writing is about picking the right word at the right time.

The real area in which Hutson's extremely descriptive style yields noticeable dividends is when he is talking about wounds and injuries. It may be his horror chops flexing, but the man can write some serious gore. The shooting scenes from the movie are rendered here in such a realistic manner that you can almost see, feel, and even smell it. Even the scene where the Terminator is removing his damaged organic eye; the way Hutson describes it, it makes you wince, even though you know the Terminator doesn't register pain.

Also, the few sex scenes in the book are nicely squishy, and slightly over-broiled. I'm sure this was a nice draw for young male readers back in the 80's.

I mentioned before that the novel and the movie follow pretty much the same track. However, as with most novelizations, there are scenes in the book which offer more detail than what we saw on the big screen, and there are some additional scenes as well. One plus is that in the book we get more of Traxler and Vulkovich, who were always a great team. We also get to see the scene of the second Sarah Connor's murder, and there is also a moment where we realize that destroying Cyberdine was something that Sarah was contemplating from the beginning.

There really isn't anything that I can say as a negative regarding this novelization. I mean, it tells the story we all know and love, and it gives us some fresh takes on it, all slathered in gory gobbets. I will say this; I got my copy from a UK seller. So, there are some "British" variations on words here: dumpsters are garbage skips, apartments are flats, and speedometers are just called speedos (which gets weird, since there are numerous car chases, and when Kyle Reese "looks down at his speedo", you suddenly have a vision of him sitting there in a bathing suit). Also, Hutson has a tendency to use the term "precious seconds" very often. Car hitting a bump while speeding? It'll fly for "precious seconds". Terminator aiming a gun at your head? He'll be zeroing in for "precious seconds".

Oh, and the character is referred to as "Terminator". Not "The Terminator". "Terminator". It takes a little bit to get used to.

And, lastly, Arnie's iconic line is slightly different here. Be forewarned.

All in all, this is an excellent novelization, and it won't cost you your retirement fund to own. Hopefully, I can get a copy of Frake's version sometime this year and do a comparison.

Cover:

The cover of the novel is simply the movie poster. Given that this is one of the greatest, most iconic posters of all time (hell, I still want a pair of Gargoyles), it's a winner.


Monday, May 22, 2017

This Long Vigil

This Long Vigil by Rhett C. Bruno. Originally published December, 2015 by Pervenio Corp. Approx. 20 pages.

Last June, I concluded my review for Rhett C. Bruno's ambitious bounty hunter novel Titanborn with the observation that he has introduced a universe that is fertile ground for additional stories. This Long Vigil, actually published back in 2015, While this emotional short does take place in the same universe, it is not connected to the story of Titanborn protagonist Malcolm Graves. Let's take a look at the blurb before we get to the review.

After twenty five years serving as the lone human Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes, Orion is scheduled to be placed back in his hibernation chamber with the other members of the crew. Knowing that he will die there and be replaced before the ship's voyage is over, he decides that he won't accept that fate. Whatever it takes he will escape Hermes and see space again, even if it means defying the regulations of his only friend -- the ship-wide artificial intelligence known as Dan.

The story here revolves around Orion's "last day on the job". We watch as he goes through the mundane motions of his daily tasks, eats the same nutrient-balanced food equivalent, and engages in games of riddles with Dan, the AI that overseas all the major operations of the Hermes. 

And yet, something keeps niggling at the back of Orion's mind. Is it a feeling of doubt, of desire, or both? These feelings are exacerbated as he finalizes his choice for his replacement monitor. Day in, and day out, he witnesses births and deaths which occur in stasis tubes. It is Inhabitant 2781, the beautiful young female who is the forerunner in his replacement choices, that apparently spurs the escalation of Orion's desire to want.....well, to want more.

So, Orion has to make the first true choice of his lifetime. What comes out of it is a sobering, emotional tale. You might be expecting something with an element of danger, or perhaps the kindly Dan assuming a dictator role, but that isn't this story. This is a story that reminds us that the tough choices are often the tough choices because they do not come with guaranteed happy endings.

Orion is a nicely done protagonist. We can sympathize, for sure, with the frustration associated with a mundane life of set tasks. At one point I wondered, what is it that drives him to desire "freedom"? It isn't as though he is shown trying to gather additional intelligence on the "worlds out there". But, then you realize, it is basic human nature to try to see, learn, and know what is a step beyond the familiar.

As in his Circuit books, Bruno gives us an AI that is more compelling than the human character. Dan is a system akin to HAL or AUTO, As the story progresses, we wonder if his efforts at rapport are genuine, or set algorithms in place to maintain the mental sanity of the human element on the ship. However, as the story reaches its climax, it becomes apparent that the concern was in fact genuine (or was it?).

There you have it; a fully-realized, emotional tale packed into an economical wordcount. Give this short a read.

Buy it here.

Visit Rhett's site.

Recent TNL interview with Rhett C. Bruno.